Priest: U.S., Church need to deal with racism’s deep roots

| Susan Klemond | September 27, 2017 | 11 Comments

Social ethicist Father Bryan Massingale speaks on racism Sept. 20 at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Ann Papenfuss

The United States will only heal from racism and become a just society when Americans honestly address racism’s underlying causes, Father Bryan Massingale said Sept. 20 in a lecture at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

“There are many ways to talk about racism as a political issue, a sociological phenomenon [and] a cultural divide, but at its deepest level, racism is a soul sickness,” said Father Massingale, a racial justice scholar and professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in New York. “It’s a profound warping of the human spirit that enables human communities to create communities of cold, callous indifference to their darker brothers and sisters.”

The lecture, “To Redeem the Soul of America: A Moral Vision for a Movement Against Racism,” was co-sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity at St. Catherine University, and St. Peter Claver parish in St. Paul. The event was part of St. Peter Claver’s 125th anniversary celebration, and the parish’s gospel choir performed before Father Massingale’s presentation. About 850 students, members of at least 25 Catholic parishes and others attended the event or watched nearby on monitors.

The United States hasn’t had an honest reckoning with its history, said Father Massingale, author of “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” (Orbis, 2010). Although laws have changed, underlying cultural meanings and values have changed less, leaving racism still entrenched in society, he said. That’s one reason Martin Luther King Jr. called for pulling up the roots of racism to morally and ethically transform American society, he added.

As part of this transformation, he said, the Catholic Church in America needs to see that it remains a predominantly white institution, and it didn’t adequately confront racism in the 20th century.

The country’s post-civil rights period has been short compared to the total history of African-Americans’ experience of inferiority, and pain and injustice remain, Father Massingale said.

If people don’t treat the deeper meaning of racism in the “national soul,” it finds new form and expression, he said.

“At the core of [the] soul of America, there is deep ambivalence on the part of this nation to the condition of African-Americans specifically and people of color in general,” he said.

Although the U.S. Catholic bishops have called racism a “radical evil,” the Church in America hasn’t developed a radical response that employs not only charity but justice, Father Massingale said.

America has never had a vision for a racially just society, he said. To contrast, he pointed to King’s vision of people peacefully relating to each other across their differences.

To effectively confront racism, Father Massingale offered several steps, including naming it, humbly asking that it be removed, encountering others who are different and prayer.

“We are healed of our biases only through encounter, and that means putting ourselves in the way of having difficult two-way conversations and not running when they make us uncomfortable,” he said.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who led a closing prayer, said he was familiar with Father Massingale’s writing, “but to hear him actually speak in such a provocative way and such a truly Catholic way, that reminds us who we’re supposed to be.”

Attendee Dave Swinarski, 68, agreed that discussing racism can be uncomfortable.

“It’s a step that we can’t fear, because it’s part of who we are,” said Swinarski, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Red Wing. “We need to discuss it and be able to talk about it to all people so that we can be more accepting.”

Corinna Turbes, 30, also attended the lecture. “I’m really interested in how to have these conversations and what are some thoughtful ways to bring up this conversation in a way that really can affect public policy in a meaningful and just light,” she said.

Despite challenges in overcoming racism, Father Massingale said there is reason for hope.

“The society we live in is the result of human choices and decisions,” he said. “This means that human beings can change things. When humans break, divide and separate, we can — with God’s help — also heal, unite and restore. What is now does not have to be. Therein lies our hope and our challenge.”

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